Human Rights Groups Applaud Tough UN Review of ‘Highly Repressive’ Laos

UN Human Rights Committee faults Laos over enforced disappearances, freedom of speech and many other problems

Lao agricultural expert Sombath Somphone, who went missing in December 2012, in 2005 file photo.

A harsh review by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) of Laos’ rights record should prompt the international community to press the one-party state to make major political and legal reforms, human rights groups said on Thursday.

The Geneva-based UNHRC held talks with Laos on July 11-12 in that Swiss city and on July 26 issued a tough review of the Southeast Asian country’s compliance with its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was the first review since Laos became a state party to the Covenant in 2009.

“The outcome of the United Nations’ assessment of the human rights situation in Laos highlighted the country’s highly repressive environment and the government’s failure to respect virtually all civil and political rights,” said a statement by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the affiliated Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR).

The UNHCR found shortcomings across the board and in particular criticized Lao government performance in enforced disappearances, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, arbitrary arrests, prison conditions, right to vote and treatment of minorities.

“The outcome of the UN review should be an eye-opener for foreign governments, which have too often looked the other way whenever human rights violations were committed in Laos. There are no more excuses for the international community to refuse to pressure the Lao government to address key human rights issues,” said FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

The head of the FIDH’s Lao affiliate likewise urged the international community to press Laos to reform.

“Encouraged by the growing financial assistance received from the international community, the Lao government has repeatedly showed its lack of political will to respect human rights. It’s time for foreign governments to tell Vientiane that without the urgent implementation of necessary legislative and political reforms, their support will no longer be guaranteed,” said LMHR President Vanida Thephsouvanh.

Top aid donors or lenders to Laos in recent years have been Japan, Australia and Germany as well as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank’s International Development Association. China has played a growing role, especially in funding large infrastructure projects like railroads and highways.

Last month during the review, rights groups criticized the Lao delegation for evading tough questioning on issues including the dislocation of people evicted from land for development projects and the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an agricultural expert who vanished at a police checkpoint outside the Lao capital Vientiane in 2012.

Laos’ ‘sweeping denials’ criticized

In many cases during the July 11-12 session, Lao delegate Bounkeut Sangsomsak refused to answer detailed questions and tried to change the subject, accusing the highly regarded Sombath of having $1-2 million in unreported assets. He also attacked Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng, who has embarrassed the Lao government by campaigning tirelessly for answers to her husband’s disappearance.

In its July 26 review, the UNHRC said it “regrets the paucity of relevant information provided by (Laos) regarding the measures taken, and the progress achieved, in investigating the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone.”

The report mentions more than a dozen other forced disappearances that Laos had failed to address satisfactorily and took issue with the Lao delegation’s handling of those cases during the July 11-12 session.

It cited the cases of Bounthanh Thammavong, a Polish citizen of Lao heritage who was sentenced in September 2015 to nearly five years in prison under Article 65 of the penal code for “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” in a Facebook posting, and three Lao workers who were given long prison terms in a secret trial in April for criticizing their government in Facebook postings while working in Thailand.

Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong, and Soukan Chaithad disappeared in March 2016 after returning to Laos to renew their passports. Charged with criticizing the Lao government online while working abroad, the three were handed prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in sentences described as harsh and unjust by rights groups worldwide.

“The Committee notes with concern the delegation’s sweeping denial of such allegations and its criticism of the sources of allegations about enforced disappearances during the dialogue with the Committee,” said the review.

In the areas of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the UNHRC condemned severe restrictions on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

“The Committee regrets the existence of severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly, which hinder the development of a civic space in which individuals can meaningfully exercise their human rights and promote human rights without fear of sanctions and reprisals,” said the review.

The UNHRC said it was concerned about consistent reports of torture and ill-treatment in prisons, deaths in custody, harsh prison conditions due to severe overcrowding, inadequate food supply and medical care, and the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

Land grabs in ethnic minority areas, a major source of social tension in Laos, was also a focus of the UN review.

“The Committee is concerned about reports of forced relocation of a number of ethnic minority communities as a result of land grabbing and land concessions to development projects such as the building of hydropower stations, extractive activities or the establishment of economic special zones,” it said.

“The Committee is concerned that many of the traditional lands were reportedly converted into development projects without adequate consultation with the affected communities or provision of adequate compensation or relocation sites and at reports of arbitrary arrest and detention of farmers and villagers protesting against land leases and concessions,” it said.

The Lao government is required to follow up and provide information by July 27, 2020 on implementing UNHRC recommendations on enforced disappearances, the right to vote and minority rights.